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[personal profile] yatima
I loved Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and I revere his own series, Master of None. The "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None is one of the best things I have ever seen on television. So I picked up Modern Romance with some enthusiasm.

In a classic Tom Haverford move, rather than just write the obligatory you-have-succeeded-as-a-comedian-on-TV book (Bossypants, Girl Walks Into a Bar, I'm Just a Person, Paddle Your Own Canoe, Self-Inflicted Wounds, The Bedwetter, Yes Please... yeah, it's a genre), Ansari teamed up with Stanford sociologist Eric Klinenberg to figure out both why technologically-mediated dating is such an unrelieved horror show and, reading between the lines, why Ansari was finding it difficult to meet a nice woman.

The resulting book reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in that it's as curious and interesting as it is funny. Ansari's quizzical sweetness shines especially in his reporting on the specific dating scenes in Buenos Aires, Doha, Paris and Tokyo.
In Japan, posting any pictures of yourself, especially selfie-style photos, comes off as really douchey. Kana, an attractive, single twenty-nine-year-old, remarked: “All the foreign people who use selfies on their profile pic? The Japanese feel like that’s so narcissistic.” In her experience, pictures on dating sites would generally include more than two people. Sometimes the person wouldn’t be in the photo at all. I asked what they would post instead.

“A lot of Japanese use their cats,” she said.

“They’re not in the photo with the cat?” I asked.

“Nope. Just the cat. Or their rice cooker.”

“I once saw a guy posted a funny street sign,” volunteered Rinko, thirty-three. “I felt like I could tell a lot about the guy from looking at it.”

This kind of made sense to me. If you post a photo of something interesting, maybe it gives some sense of your personality? I showed a photo of a bowl of ramen I had taken earlier in the day and asked what she thought of that as a profile picture. She just shook her head. OH, I GUESS I CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE TO THAT STREET SIGN DUDE, HUH?

For me, the most engaging part of the book was seeing insights that later ended up as jokes in Master of None. I endorse and seek to emulate this kind of creative reuse! As for meeting a nice woman, the gossip rags tell me that Ansari was in a relationship with pastrychef Courtney McBloom for a while, but they parted amicably last year. So it goes.
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[personal profile] sumofparts
I finished my second set of 50, yay and started a new set. Below are some thoughts on the books.

Remainder of second set:
39. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
40. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
41. Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
42. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
43. The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
44. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
45. Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
46. Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta
47. The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee
48. Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong
49. Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre
50. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
New set:
1. Decoded by Jay-Z

Cut for length )
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[personal profile] pauraque
This book chronicles the history of cancer diagnosis and treatment from antiquity to the present day, and for being a fairly long book it was a damn quick read for me, because every bit of it was interesting. I was constantly looking for excuses to pick up the book and find out what would happen next. I learned an extraordinary number of things about cancer that I had no idea about before, particularly the latest theories on how it functions on a genetic level.

I have no medical background, but none was needed -- Mukherjee, an oncologist himself, has the gift of making science easy to understand without reducing it to vague analogies. Read more... )

a: Mukherjee Siddhartha, Indian-American, non-fiction, medicine
[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com
A fascinating, easily readable history of cancer, how people conceived of it, how they tried to cure it, and how all that changed society and science. Mukherjee is an oncologist, and salts the text with anecdotes about his own patients. (Those were great and I would have liked more of them.)

If you like pop science at all, this is a great example of it: educational, clearly written, both explaining things you always wondered about (why is there so much cancer nowadays?) and delving into issues it never occurred to you wonder about (how did we get from a time when the New York Times refused to print the words “breast” and “cancer” to marathons for a cure?) Mukherjee takes us from bone tumors found in ancient mummies, to the Persian queen Atossa who had a slave perform a mastectomy on her, to the genesis of “wars on diseases” and campaigning for funds and cures, to the beginnings of chemotherapy, to cutting edge genetic research. He brings all the personalities of the scientists, the politicians, the patients, and the (evil! evil!) tobacco company executives to vivid life.

I probably don’t need to mention that this book can be gross, upsetting, and disturbing, given the subject matter. (The section on radical mastectomies was especially nightmarish.) But if you can either deal with that or skim a bit, I highly recommend this.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
14. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

A sort-of fantasy novel about Tilo, a 'Mistress of Spices'- immortal, mystical women, trained in magic and secret knowledge, sent out into the world to help people. Tilo is sent to Oakland, California, where she slowly becomes personally involved in the lives of the people around her, and begins to reveal her own backstory.

This novel is very hard to describe, because it doesn't have much of a plot for most of its length. Instead, it's full of beautiful, poetic descriptions of spices and food, magic, Oakland and imaginary places like the Island where Mistresses are trained. Some parts are very realistic; others involve rampaging pirate queens or singing sea serpents. It took me a while to get into this book, because the beginning is very slow, but by the end I was in love. The language is incredibly evocative, and the resolution felt just right. I really grew to like the characters, particularly Tilo, who shows herself to be much more of a flawed human than any mystical fairy.

Highly recommended.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
13. Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East

I love travel books, and this is a fantastic one. Iyer visits several Asian countries (including India, China, Tibet, Burma, the Philippines, Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong, and probably a few more I'm forgetting) with the goal of seeing how they've been affected by Western pop culture and tourism. Iyer is quite good at describing places, and seems to have really made the effort to get to know local people and include their viewpoints.

This book is a bit out-of-date now (it was written in the early 80s), but to me that just added to the appeal. This is a China and Tibet newly opened to Westerners, a Hong Kong which is still a colony, Burma before it was Myanmar. So many of the places he visits no longer exist- at least, not as they did at the time- that it makes for an intriguing historical snapshot.

Iyer uses the 'Modern, Masculine West meets Traditional, Feminine East! However Will They Understand One Another?' trope a bit too much for my tastes, but you could easily skim those parts and focus on the descriptions of places and people, which are quite well-written. Recommended, and I'd love recs for other travel books, if you have a favorite!
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[personal profile] pauraque
I used to work at a greeting card store that stood between a coffee shop and a smoothie place. We had a sign asking customers not to bring their drinks inside, because too many people had spilled them all over the cards, but often people didn't see the sign or ignored it.

One day a tall, well-dressed guy walked in with a drink, so I pointed out the rule and asked nicely if he would set the drink down while he looked at the cards. He glared down at me, and in complete seriousness and withering condescension, he said this:

"Do you actually think that *I*, a 40-year-old doctor, am going to spill my smoothie?"

I thought a lot about Dr. Never-Spills-His-Smoothie while I was reading The Checklist Manifesto, which is indeed about checklists, but is also very much about the dangers of arrogance, particularly among medical professionals.

Read more... )

(tags: a: gawande atul, indian-american, medicine)
[identity profile] mizchalmers.livejournal.com
41. Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, The Four Immigrants Manga

This book is so freakin' awesome I can't even tell you. I love 20th-century memoir, I love San Francisco local history and I love graphic novels: The Four Immigrants Manga is a standout in all three categories. Even the tale of its rediscovery is freakin' awesome. Frederik L. Schodt was researching a book on Japanese manga in 1980 (how avant is THAT?) when he stumbled across this in a Berkeley library. It took another EIGHTEEN YEARS before his translation was published. Seriously, you should just go and read it right now. Schodt's translation is very clever and sensitive, with English and translated-Japanese rendered in different styles, so you always know where you are.

And the story itself, holy cow! It's the tale of the author, who came to San Francisco to study, and three friends he met on the boat. They land in 1904 and the book follows their lives for twenty years, so yes, there's a huge earthquake right up front, but in fact what happens after that is often even awesomer and stranger. (Hint: farm work is much harder than you think.) And it's funnier than hell. Can you tell that I liked it? The Four Immigrants Manga is one of those texts that reaches across a language barrier and a hundred years and shakes the teeth out of your head. It brings my beloved San Francisco to life in new ways. It should be required reading in California schools, and if it were, the kids would love it. BECAUSE IT'S GREAT.

42-3. Sanjay Patel, The Little Book of Hindu Deities and Ramayana: Divine Loophole

Actually all five of the books I'm reviewing today have strong links to the Bay Area, and that's because San Francisco is my adopted home and I love it like food. Go Giants! Patel is an animator at Pixar, across the Bay. I first encountered his Hindu-deity-art at his Web site, Ghee Happy, and I was one of many nagging him to just go publish a book already. Little Book is a useful reference, if you're like me and can't always keep your Gods straight, but Ramayana is an honest-to-God masterpiece. My husband read it to my daughters, aged 7 and 4, and they were spellbound by it every night. The illustrations are really beyond beautiful, and Chronicle Books has done a nice job with the binding: it's an object with heft and sheen, a desirable thing. Highly recommended, if only as a counterbalance to the Greek revival of the Percy Jackson series.

44. Jen Wang, Koko Be Good

Wang is another local graphic artist and Koko is not only set in San Francisco, like the great Wyatt Cenac film Medicine for Melancholy it's set in my San Francisco, south of Market Street, the San Francisco of beer at Zeitgeist and Al's Comics and the fog rolling in under Sutro Tower. It's intensely evocative and very good on random encounters and the strength of the relationships they can drag in their wake, especially for people in transition. If I found the ending both telegraphed and a bit unsatisfying, it's because I'm an extremely fussy old lady with brutally high standards in graphic novels. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and if you like it you will love Paul Madonna's sublime All Over Coffee.

45. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking

I've only just started reading this and it's going to take a while, because I will only read it during daylight, not while I am trying to go to sleep. Not since Truman Capote's In Cold Blood have I read anything that is quite so high-octane nightmare fuel, and for very much the same reasons: the killings it describes are real, random and purposeless, and the prose itself is beautiful, clear, organized and relentless.

One of the oldest cities of China, [Suchow] was prized for its delicate silk embroidery, palaces, and temples. Its canals and ancient bridges had earned the city its Western nickname as "the Venice of China." On November 19, on a morning of pouring rain, a Japanese advance guard marched through the gates of Suchow, wearing hoods that prevented the Chinese sentries from recognizing them. Once inside, the Japanese murdered and plundered the city for days, burning down ancient landmarks and abducting thousands of Chinese women for sexual slavery. The invasion, according to the China Weekly Review, caused the population of the city to drop from 350,000 to less than 500.
It's a controversial book - Wikipedia has some useful starting-points for a discussion of factual inaccuracies and disputed interpretations - and on the whole you'd probably rather not have it be the famous plagiarist Stephen Ambrose who declares you "one of the best of our young historians." But it is an important book, that helped revive the memory of Nanking in the West.

Chang took her own life in 2004, and I am sorry for the books of hers we will not get to read.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
8. Anne Cherian, A Good Indian Wife

Leila is a teacher in a small South Indian town, who's beginning to worry that she might be too old to find a husband. Suneel is a doctor in San Francisco with a white girlfriend and no interest in returning to India. However, when Suneel goes to visit his sick grandfather, family machinations arrange a marriage between the two almost before they know what's happened. Now Leila has to adjust to her new husband and life in America, while Suneel strives to change as little as possible (including continuing the relationship with the girlfriend) and plots ways out of the marriage.

This book is a bit of a fairy tale, but despite that, it was a fun, quick read. I never felt very sympathetic to Suneel (HE'S TOTALLY A JERK, COME ON, HE DIDN'T BREAK UP WITH HIS GIRLFRIEND), but Leila is a great, interesting character, and I really enjoyed spending time with her. The writing is very good, and I was okay with the predictable plot for the sake of the vivid descriptions of food, clothing, sight-seeing, and Leila's gradual adjustments.

Not a deep book, but an enjoyable one. Recommended.
[identity profile] tala-tale.livejournal.com
Hi, everyone! I've been lurking here for a bit, browsing reviews and recommendations -- so many things to explore! To start this off, I got a bunch of books from the library all at once, and have been reading them over the past three weeks or so. I haven't really kept track of the order in which I've read them, so I thought that where I've read multiple books by the same author, I'd group those together.

I loved all three of Gawande's books, and would highly recommend them (and have been) to pretty much anyone I can think of. Each one draws on Gawande's experiences as a surgeon to allow him to probe the intricate interplay of human fallibility and modern knowledge, not just in medicine but in any truly complex human endeavor. What I loved about Gawande's writing in all three books was the combination of his very down-to-earth and even-handed take on the real-world situations he describes and his probing, intelligent, often very philosophical examinations of the patterns of cause-and-effect that they reveal.

Brief reviews of all three books. )

While I think these three books would all stand alone just fine, I found that reading them in order allowed each one to build on the previous one, just as Gawande's experiences have built as he's moved from one to the next.
[identity profile] alankria.livejournal.com
After reading Vandana Singh's story "Oblivion: A Journey" - aka the Ramayana IN SPAAAACE - in Clockwork Phoenix 1, I wanted her short story collection. It doesn't reprint that story, but offers ten others.

The stories range widely in genre, from "Conservation Laws", a story-within-a-story about a mission on Mars that took a strange turn, to the not-quite-everyday "Hunger" and "The Wife", to the wonderful "Three Tales from Sky River", a collection of far-future folklore of settlements on other worlds, and "Infinities", a story of advanced mathematics and real-world religious tensions.

"Delhi", one of my favourites is about a man who glimpses the past and future of Delhi, who sees a woman he's been given a picture of from a strange organisation that stops suicides by offering them an unusual reason to live in these pictures of individuals they must try to meet. He tries to find out whether he can interfere in the events and lives he glimpses - especially the mysterious woman's. Not all of it is resolved by the end. If only Singh would write a novel that starts with "Delhi" and keeps going!

The language is often beautiful, sometimes strange. I wish I had my copy with me so I could quote extensively; the only line I copied was: The apartment, with its plump sofas like sleeping walruses... (The second sentence of "Hunger".) Singh evokes her settings, usually India, such that they feel real, with all the attendant complexity, beauty and harshness, and so on.

Singh clearly loves India, loves writing about it and its people, while engaging critically with its expectations of women. In "The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet", Kamala's husband, Ramnath, is concerned with the way her planetary state makes her act in public, almost more than he's concerned about her mental health. Towards the end, when events have turned quite fantastical, a judge taps Ramnath on the shoulder and tells him how reprehensible this is. It's probably more surreal than what Kamala is doing. In "The Tetrahedron", Maya develops a relationship with an interesting young man, based on discussion of the tetrahedron, and realises that she really doesn't want to follow the path already laid out for her: newly acquired fiance who doesn't especially like or understand her. In the appropriately titled "Thirst", Susheela is drawn to the water, away from her married life. The mysterious woman Urmila in "The Room on the Roof" is bitter that her friend Renuka, formerly a skilled sculptress, is now content to only inspire her husband; events later take a sinister turn. And so on.

Ian McDonald may fill his books with "exotic" detail, but Vandana Singh's India is the one I want to read about. Her work is intelligent, interesting and, above all, real - even when it's about a woman-naga or a mysteriously appearing alien shape.

This is one of the best books I've read recently. Highly recommended.
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
43). What's So Great About Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza

A response to the rhetorical barrage of pro-atheism literature we've seen in recent years, D'Souza goes on the offensive against Dennett and Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and the rest of the atheists who have labeled Christianity and theism as destructive, dangerous ideas that should be eradicated.

I liked this better than I liked The End of Racism. There were less ideas that I immediately rejected as outright crazy, and also there was an admission that sometimes D'Souza adopts unacceptable or crazy ideas as a rhetorical pose to force moral relativists to admit they do think some principles are absolute. (I suspected this was true in The End of Race, and was relieved to hear him say it.)

Of course, as a Jew I am suspicious of a lot of the theology he advances. But I thought he did a relatively tasteful job of arguing that the Inquisition wasn't as bad as it's been claimed. That was a section of the book that had the potential to make me hyperventilate, and it didn't.

D'Souza's an extraordinarily agile thinker. He moves quickly and skillfully through big and complicated ideas, dealing with Kant and Hume and Nietzsche and Augustine in digestible but not dumbed-down form. If you're looking for a response to The End of Faith, this is a pretty decent place to look.
[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com
Surgeon and science writer Atul Gawande’s previous books, Complications (on the role of intuition, the unknown, and other hard to quantify things in the practice of medicine) and Better (on the pursuit of excellence and why we often don’t reach it, focused on by not exclusive to medicine), are two of my favorite nonfiction books. I’ve read them both several times over and highly recommend them. Better in particular has wide-reaching implications and requires no independent interest in medicine.

The Checklist Manifesto, about why checklists are a good idea which can be used in many endeavors, makes an extremely convincing and well-documented case in favor of checklists. But unlike his previous books, which used specific cases to make larger points, this really is a book about checklists.

It would have been of far more general interest if it had been a book about the tension between set routines and individualism, and used checklists as an example of that. Instead, it’s the other way around. By the end of the book I had read the word checklist so often that it reminded me of my experience reading the book about Toni Bentley's ass.

Worth checking out from the library, but not something you’re likely to want to re-read.

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
48. B. B. Lal, The Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture

A short, easy-to-read (except for one chapter which seems to come from another book entirely) pop non-fiction summary of the Indus or Harappan Civilization, a Bronze Age culture located in the modern countries of India and Pakistan, which had its own writing system, cities, and art, and traded with cultures as far away as Mesopotamia. This is a very nice introduction to the topic, which covers most of the main points and has lots of nice photographs. It's shorter and probably a better book for the non-academic audience than most other summaries of the Indus I know of; on the other hand, Lal is seriously influenced by his personal politics in choosing what and how to discuss. But for someone who is new to the topic, this would be a great book.

49. Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi's Nation: Homespun and Modern India

A really fascinating investigation of one aspect of the Indian Independence movement. Gandhi was highly in favor of khadi- homemade thread and cloth- and thought that everyone who wanted to see India out from under British rule should not only use and wear khadi exclusively, but should spend half an hour a day making it. He thought that this would restore dignity to the working class, as well as provide a way for India's economy to escape the influence of the British factory system. Needless to say, not everyone actually wanted to spend that much time spinning thread, and the debates around the topic resemble the modern arguments over buying local/fair-trade/organic/etc. Trivedi provides a great account of these debates, the way they changed over time, and how khadi continues to function in the Indian political sphere; she even includes political cartoons about it! This is a non-fiction academic book, but very accessible; highly recommended.

50. Kajri Jain, Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art

Calendar art (aka bazaar art aka chromolithographs aka poster art) is a particular style of vividly colored, mass-produced art popular in India, particularly in calendars and advertisements, usually depicting religious images. Jain's book takes this often-ignored art seriously, investigating multiple realms of the topic: who produces calendar art? who buys it? how has it changed over time? what do artists say about it? how does it circulate? Despite the subtitle, she really doesn't address the economy of it, but instead focuses on meanings and interpretations. This book is another non-fiction academic title, and one a bit harder to get into than Clothing Gandhi's Nation. But it does have lots of pretty pictures!
[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com
Massey, a biracial (Indian-German-American) woman, used her experience living in Japan and dealing with cross-cultural issues to create a series of mysteries featuring a biracial Japanese-American woman antique dealer living in Tokyo.

I read the first bunch years ago and was charmed by the vivid and down to earth depiction of Tokyo, which was very close to my own experience of the city. The novels themselves are fluffy mysteries with romantic elements, each focusing on a different aspect of Japanese culture, such as ikebana in The Flower Master. I recall them as fun but not terribly well-written, and may also be quite dated by now judging by my experience with the one I just read.

Bride's Kimono, The is mostly set in American, as Rei Shimura gets a job shepherding a set of valuable kimono from a museum in Tokyo to one in Washington DC; naturally, a kimono is stolen, someone is murdered, her ex-boyfriend appears, and she’s accused of being a prostitute (!) and must clear her name, find the kimono, pick a man, and solve the crime, all the while stumbling through culture clashes with both Japanese and American people.

The new setting took away a lot of the fun of the series for me, though I did enjoy the details about antique kimono. I was a little boggled that in a book written in 2001, Rei had never used a computer and didn’t know what a mouse was; this was presented as slightly eccentric but not bizarre.

Nothing special, but I was entertained.
[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com
An extremely readable and fascinating book by a neuroscientist (Ramachandran) and a science writer (Blakeslee), about using case studies of brain-injury patients to examine how the brain works. (Ramachandran was born and raised in India, but now lives in the USA. Blakeslee is a white American.)

Ramachandran’s speculations on the cause of phantom limb pain from amputated limbs produced a cure which works extremely well for some (not all) patients. But considering how intractable the condition usually is, that’s a remarkable achievement. His cure— which succeeded in some cases where medication and surgery failed— consists of a box with a hole cut into it, and a mirror he bought for five dollars…

Even if you’ve read other popular works on the brain and cognition before, this should be of interest to you, as even when it seemed that Ramachandran was going over familiar territory, he went so much more in-depth that even topics I thought I was already well-acquainted with became completely new. A lot of popular science either over-simplifies too much and doesn’t tackle the questions it raises, or else is too technical to be easily followed by a layperson. This book was easy to read but dug into the deeper implications of its topics nearly every time. Ramachandran at times reminded me of This American Life’s Ira Glass in his ability to ask not just the obvious follow-up question, but the much less obvious and more revealing follow-up to the follow-up.

His enthusiasm for his field and the possibility of doing extremely low-tech experiments in it is contagious and charming. (A number of his experiments require nothing more than a human volunteer, a pencil, a table, a box, a mirror, and an undergraduate hiding under the box.) I also enjoyed his sense of humor: he’s evidently friends with Francis Crick of DNA fame, who is apparently a fervent atheist, and uses Crick as an example any time he mentions atheism, as in (from memory), “It would be interesting to see if stimulating the temporal lobe could also cause atheists to experience a sense of oneness with God. Perhaps I should try it on Francis Crick.” I am an atheist myself, and this cracked me up. He also has a hilarious take-down of the more unlikely theories of sociobiologists in the endnotes to one chapter. Don’t neglect to read the endnotes, there’s great stuff in there.

I thought this book was extremely entertaining, thought-provoking, and educational. My one possible warning is his use of the phrase “normal people” (both with and without quotes) to mean people without brain injuries. Given the context, I’m not sure that would be considered pejorative, but I’m mentioning it in case it is. If that’s not a dealbreaker, I highly recommend the book.

View on Amazon: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind


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